Now that we found a feature, what do we do?

by Jean Cascardi Archaeology Crew Chief

Two weeks ago, we discussed archaeological features. This week’s blog is going to focus on the archaeological methodology we employ to define, excavate, and interpret features on archaeological sites. The first indication of an archaeological feature, typically, is an observable change in the soil, but can be as obvious as stone foundation (as picture below). The change in the soil may be determined by a difference in color, texture, or inclusions. Prior to feature excavation, archaeologists need to define the extent of the feature or the size and shape of the feature in order to properly characterize it. This is an important step in the process of excavating features, skipping this step can lead to a misinterpretation of the feature itself. Features come in different shapes and sizes, smaller features may be postholes or molds while large ones might be large foundations that have been in filled by soil over time. Determining the size and shape of the feature prior to excavation  or the way in which a feature or the site will be excavated or sampled.

Archaeological features are one of the best ways archaeologists get information about the people who used the site in the past. Cooking pits, wells, cellars, privies, etc. provide intimate details about the daily lives of past occupants. Because the distribution of features is essential to understanding how past occupants molded their landscape, detailed mapping of all features is required. Additionally, features can provide information on socio-economic status, food ways, occupations, or even widespread daily habits such as tobacco use. Therefore, you may imagine that the research questions will be amended and methodology will change when features are uncovered.

CART archaeologists introduce two important procedures into their process of excavation once they begin excavating features. These are window mesh water screening and the collection of flotation samples. Window mesh screening allows for the recovery of even the smallest artifacts, while flotation will separate the lighter organic materials from the heavier sand, rock, and artifacts from the sample. The goal is to attempt to identify organic remains that site occupants may have been using for dietary purposes. This finer level of recovery provides even more detailed information about the site occupants than is achievable through ¼” dry screening alone.

In the process of feature excavation, archaeologists will typically forego the shovel and pick up their trusty trowel or even smaller instruments for more detailed excavation. These tools may include toothbrushes, paintbrushes, spoons, bamboo skewers, and at times even dental picks! If you want to learn more about the process of excavating archaeological features, come join us in the field!

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About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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